Tuesday 30 August 2011

Beach magic

What makes a great beach? I was wondering this as Jenny and I and a friend were walking across Ballyholme beach, just a few miles from Belfast, and I was thinking "This is just as good as Bondi."

Yes, I've been to Bondi, but why it has such a glittering reputation I don't know. It's no better than a lot of other beaches. It's probably all the visiting celebs who give it an inflated glamour.

So what's the secret of a perfect beach? Here's my own checklist:

1) plenty of sand
2) plenty of space
3) no sharks, jellyfish or other nasties
4) not too many people
5) no litter or pollution
6) attractive setting, not over-developed
7) warm enough to swim
8) windy enough to surf
9) some good cafés
10) some interesting shops

Well, Ballyholme scores on most of those (even the surfing), though swimming is for the warm-blooded only and I did see a few jellyfish. And the only cafés and shops are round the corner in Bangor.

On the other hand Bondi is often distinctly overcrowded and touristy, and sharks sometimes pay a visit. The one big difference is of course the blazing Aussie sun. But wild, windswept beaches can be just as exciting as the scorching ones.

The fact is I was just as reluctant to leave the particular charms of Ballyholme beach as I was to leave Bondi. And I know some Sydneysiders wouldn't be seen dead on Bondi, they sneak off to the quieter, more remote beaches only the locals know about.

So move over, Bondi, other beaches are magical too.

PS (Wednesday): A 14 foot shark has been spotted at Portrush harbour on the north coast. But it's a basking shark and is said to be harmless to humans....

Pic: Ballyholme beach, near Bangor, Northern Ireland

Thursday 25 August 2011

Love locks

The worldwide fashion for love locks has become so popular that well-known tourist sights are turning into eyesores and the locks are being removed in their thousands.

The trend was prompted in 2006 by Federico Moccia's book "I Need You", in which a young couple write their names on a padlock, attach it to a lamppost and throw the key into a river to pledge eternal devotion.

He had no idea what he had started. Now there are millions of love locks in cities all over the world from Italy to Korea, China and Japan, and city officials are hopping mad at having to remove them all.

Signore Moccia* himself however has no regrets and thinks all the love locks are great. "The padlocks are a symbol of love and something to be proud of" he says. "Better a padlock than graffiti disfiguring the walls."

I don't agree with him. The love locks are spoiling the beautiful things they're attached to. All three bridges in Venice are festooned with them and they're just pointless clutter.

There are plenty of ways of showing your love for someone that don't degrade famous landmarks. And what if the couple's pledge of devotion turns sour but the padlock's still there, marking their false hopes?

To me it's simply another example of a mindless trend that people take up without thinking of the consequences of what they're doing. It's not just an amusing gesture, it's a blot on the landscape.

Call me a crusty old fuddy-duddy if you like, but I prefer the Ponte di Rialto as it was and not draped with sentimental bric-a-brac.

* pronounced Motcher. The Italian title is "Ho voglia di te".

Pic: love locks in Huangshan, China

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Charmed, I'm sure

It's usually easy enough to tell phoney charm from the genuine article. The artificial smiles of car salesmen, estate agents and politicians can be spotted a mile away and don't fool anyone for more than a few seconds.

But sometimes the phoney charm can be convincing enough to be mistaken for the real thing, and I've been conned by a few plausible villains in my time. It's only after meeting them several times that alarm bells start ringing.

Like the landlords who seemed so friendly and helpful when I first met them, only to discover a few weeks down the line that any requests for urgent repairs or pest control fell on deaf ears. Or the bosses who promised me fabulous working conditions and left me to discover the verminous kitchen and the Stone Age computers.

Sometimes the veneer of charm is so polished, so well-rehearsed, that it's hard to distinguish from the natural goodwill and compassion of the truly charming. Especially if there's no slick sales patter or oily conviviality to go with it.

I always feel sorry for those people who lose thousands of pounds to con-men who manage to worm their way into the victim's affections. Particularly if they're the confused elderly or desperately lonely (or both). Always you hear the same refrain afterwards - "But he seemed such a lovely man", "To begin with, he couldn't do enough for me."

I wrote once about the builder who scammed my mother. He was typical. At the start, he did lots of little jobs for her very cheaply. But gradually he upped his prices and did increasingly shoddy work until she was forced to turn him away. And then she was afraid he might retaliate in some way.

But I don't feel so sorry for those people who invest in shady get-rich-quick schemes and then complain that both their life savings and the dubious intermediary have vanished into thin air. Anyone who hands over large sums on the unlikely promise of fabulous wealth lacks even the most basic common sense.

Charming is as charming does. And sometimes the results aren't pretty.

Friday 19 August 2011

Spoil yourself

It's generally asssumed that book-readers don't like spoilers - too much information about the plot and what happens at the end. The big pleasure of reading is supposedly the "wait and see" element.

But an experiment by Californian psychologists suggests that actually this isn't true. They found that people who read stories containing spoilers actually enjoyed them more than the untouched version.

This took them by surprise, so much so that they're struggling to come up with any convincing explanation of why this might be. They wonder for instance if people reach a deeper understanding of a story when they aren't preoccupied with the plot and its complexities.

Journalist Alison Flood says that when reading a horror story she likes to check that the hero/heroine is still alive at the end. With romantic stories, she likes to find out straightaway who gets off with whom. She insists this unorthodox peeking doesn't affect her enjoyment at all.

Personally I don't like to be told the entire plot of a novel before I start reading it, though in some cases the plot is so fiendish that a summary I could refer to when totally confused would be handy (Nicole Krauss's The History of Love comes to mind).

And I do admit to thumbing through the pages to find out if my favourite character ends up alive or dead, or if the odious wife-beater eventually gets his come-uppance. Sometimes my curiosity is so great I just can't wait for another 200 pages to satisfy it.

But if the "wait and see" element is so crucial, how come we like rereading books, when we already know exactly what happens? Shouldn't we be throwing them in the dustbin?

Tuesday 16 August 2011

The perils of honesty

In principle, I believe honesty is the best policy. If we were all totally honest about everything, life would run a lot more smoothly.

There would be fewer misunder-standings, less mistrust, closer relationships, less scope for furtive affairs or hidden bank accounts, and less chance of dreadful discoveries about your new wife or husband. Everything would be visible and upfront, everything would be clearer and more straightforward, and we wouldn't always be swimming around in a haze of misinformation.

In reality, of course, total honesty would be disastrous. In no time we'd have offended so many people and revealed so many damaging facts we'd be seen as a hopeless liability and ostracised by all and sundry.

If we actually told our relatives or neighbours or bosses how nasty they were, the reaction would be pretty nasty too. If we told our spouses how much we secretly fancied the man/woman at the house opposite, or told our workmates we didn't in fact speak three languages fluently, or told our new landlord we were evicted from our previous flat, it would only upset our well-ordered lives for no good reason.

I guess at one time or another we've all covered up for a workmate who's made a complete mess of something, so they don't get a bollocking from a permanently irascible boss. And so they'll cover for us when we screw something up ourselves.

We invariably defend our loved ones when they're criticised by a friend or relative, even if we privately agree with the criticism. My wife* might very well be stingy and self-righteous, but I'm not going to add to the brickbats and leave her tearful and upset. No no, I hasten to say, she's just sensible with money and has strong opinions.

Several times over the years I've been aware that a workmate or friend, unbeknown to their regular partner, is flirting heavily with someone else, or even dating them, but I've kept quiet. What business is it of mine? And why tell the ignorant victim if it'll only distress them and this sudden fling might fizzle out next week anyway?

Like most things, honesty works best in small doses. Too much can be fatal.

*Not my real wife obviously. Jenny is naturally generous and open-minded at all times. And she always helps old ladies across the road.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Still fumbling

As I've said before, like many oldies, I don't really feel I've grown up yet. I feel as if I'm still a fumbling adolescent, forever groping my way through the complexities of life waiting for the sure-footedness of maturity to alight on me.

Well, I'm still waiting. Whoever's meant to be handing out the sure-footedness seems to have forgotten me. So I just have to carry on fumbling behind a pretence of worldly wisdom and carefree poise.

Someday, about forty years later than expected, I shall finally say goodbye to all those immature habits that secretly embarrass and bemuse me and become adorable and sophisticated.

All of a sudden I'll be much more generous, articulate, patient, understanding, adventurous and good at cooking. Just like that I'll know exactly what to do if someone drops dead or the person sitting next to me at the dinner party is a neo-fascist or there's a stray cow in the back garden. Nothing will phase me, nothing will send me running for cover, nothing will leave me like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I'll just stride in and take control.

And pigs will fly.

When I was young, I always assumed grown-ups were mature and responsible and infinitely knowledgeable. It never occurred to me that they might be fumbling along unsteadily the same as myself, trying desperately to make sense of everything.

Today's young people are not so innocent. They can see quite clearly that adults are often stumbling around like drunks in a pub, knocking things over and talking nonsense.

They take whatever adults say with a healthy dose of suspicion and are more likely to work out for themselves what life's all about. Which can only be a turn for the better.

Grown-ups don't know everything, and never did.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

The riots

I'm following the coverage of the riots in London and other cities with a mixture of disbelief, horror, sympathy for the innocent victims, and a total lack of surprise.

Disbelief because the sheer scale of what's going on is extraordinary. Massive buildings burnt to the ground. Blatant looting in front of the police. Thousands of youngsters casually running amok all over London. Whole neighbourhoods trashed. This goes way beyond the odd local disturbance we're used to seeing.

Horror because of the danger ordinary people are exposed to from burning buildings and vehicles, flying missiles, falling masonry and broken glass. Many people were afraid to venture onto the street for fear of injury.

Sympathy for the innocent victims of destruction. There are people who've lost both their businesses and homes, their lives wrecked. Other people who've lost their jobs, cars, precious belongings, maybe pets.

Lack of surprise because many young people in deprived areas are facing the bleakest future for generations, struggling to find jobs and a meaningful existence in the face of economic recession, deep cuts in services and facilities for youth, and politicians who're indifferent to their problems. This colossal explosion of anger, bitterness and outrage hardly comes as a big shock.

Condemning those involved as criminals and thugs is pretty futile. Yes, of course that's what they are, but it doesn't address the basic issues that have led to such rampant destruction on such an astonishing scale.

Firstly, how swathes of young people have become so alienated from the rest of society they think nothing of ruining other people's lives and laying waste to their property and possessions, and are immune to their misery and anguish.

Secondly, how numerous parents have abdicated responsibility for their children's behaviour. They've become oblivious to where they are and what they're doing, and couldn't care less if they're committing crimes or terrifying the neighbourhood.

Only when the politicians start to focus on these underlying social disorders can we have any confidence that the sort of ferocious mayhem we've seen in the last few days won't reoccur in the future.

PS: Several people have referred me to an excellent piece about the riots by Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph. He points out that corruption and immorality is now as common at the top of society as at the bottom, and that MPs and businessmen condemning the actions of the rioters are guilty of hypocrisy and double standards.

Pic: burning building in Tottenham, Saturday night

Saturday 6 August 2011

Dogs collared

If you're a dog owner in the Chinese city of Jiangmen, you're in trouble. Dogs will be banned from public streets at the end of August, because they're dangerous and unhealthy.

City leaders say 42 people have died from rabies in three years, 12000 people a year are injured by dogs, increasing dog shit on the streets is a major nuisance, and many residents find dogs frightening. So tough action is being taken.

The original plan was to ban all dogs from the city, either having them put down or given to new owners in the countryside.

But there was such a public uproar that officials had to backtrack and cancel the ban. Instead there'll be stricter controls on dog-owners, including dog licences and full liability for injuries.

I'm sure if our local council tried to get rid of dogs there'd be a similar outcry. There's no way people would wave their pets goodbye, health hazard or not.

In any case, I haven't heard of any locals getting rabies. And even if some people are scared of dogs, that's no reason to ban the lot.

Dog shit splattered all over the pavement drives me nuts, but the answer to that is surely better enforcement of the regulations against fouling pavements.

But if all the dogs in Jiangmen are to be banned from public streets and parks, how will little Fi Do get her daily exercise? Will she have to use a treadmill or go a special doggy gym? The officials are silent on this point.

I suspect dog-owners will rebel again and the streets will still be full of dogs. And the city officials will be left with egg on their faces.

PS: Several Chinese cities, including Shanghai, already have a "one-dog policy" to limit the number of pets.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Passion killers

It's strange that some people still find public displays of affection beyond the pale and would rather "that sort of thing" was confined to somewhere more private. What's so offensive about kissing or hugging someone in the street?

Of course exceptionally besotted individuals can go a bit too far in their intimate fondling and caressing, to the extent that I have to tactfully avert my gaze and pretend to be engrossed in the niceties of paving-stone design, but that's a rare occurrence. Most couples are sensible enough to keep their embraces within decent limits.

In fact I find the sight of passionately entwined couples rather touching and heart-warming, a visible reminder that love still blossoms in a world where many people feel lonely or unloved. I always hope their passion will last and not wither away.

But there are still some who maintain that such public smooching "just isn't necessary", that it's frightfully vulgar and inconsiderate, that it's "rubbing our noses in it." Rubbing our noses in what? That we can enjoy each other's company?

Same-sex embraces are especially distasteful in some quarters, goodness knows why. Religion's usually involved. But what harm is it doing anyone? It amuses me that heterosexual men are still averse to kissing or hugging each other when they meet and limit themselves to a chaste handshake. Heaven forbid anyone might get the wrong impression and think they're "that way inclined".

Personally I've not only kissed hundreds of men but enjoyed it. Kissing is always fun, whoever it's with. But I still find myself exchanging those familiar jokey remarks to other men that "We'd better not kiss, ha ha ha." Most frustrating when it's someone utterly gorgeous....

This same-sex coolness seems to be very much a British thing, a relic of the widespread sexual repression of earlier decades. Men in other countries happily kiss and hug when they meet without thinking twice about it.

There's nothing to be scared of, guys. It won't drop off.